Commentary: Lithuania's star turn helped 'Defiance' get the details right


Bulgaria and Romania might get all the attention when it comes to filming in Eastern Europe, but Lithuania is getting its moment in the sun thanks to "Defiance."

The Ed Zwick-directed World War II resistance movie revolves around three Jewish Belorussian brothers who fought the Nazis and built a community in the Naliboki Forest outside of Novgorodok.

For political reasons, Zwick and his crew did not go to Belarus -- the country basically is a dictatorship, with the same president since 1994 -- but found the next best thing in neighboring Lithuania, where the entire movie was shot.

Not only that, but the movie lensed almost entirely in the forest, with hardly any stage work at all.

The production was based in Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, only 150-200 kilometers from where the actual story took place. The filmmakers found locations within an hour's drive from the city.

"The forests are the same, the swamps are the same, it's the same geography," Zwick says.

Vilnius had a Jewish quarter that was decimated during World War II and had mass graves in the forest that are now memorial sites.

"With Ed, what you strive for is an authenticity to (a production)" says producer Pieter Jan Brugge, who worked with Zwick on "Glory" and whose producing credits include "Heat" and "Miami Vice." "What can be more authentic than going to the heart of where the story took place?"

Shooting in and around Vilnius also allowed Slavic actors to be cast in smaller, Russian-speaking roles and made it possible to cast extras who were descendants from the families the brothers saved.

Of course, shooting in the forest was no walk in the park. The actors and crew drove to the outskirts of the woods but had to hike in to the actual set. Fall had settled in (the movie shot from August-December 2007), which meant cold, wet, gray weather and low light.

"Daniel (Craig) says I did that on purpose," Zwick says.

The director says he didn't but admits it helped. "Actors are always looking for verisimilitude, and they were able to hold on to the rain and the cold for their performance," he says. "It's ineffable but it was real, and it helped the performance. I really believe that."

Cold was a definite factor, and though there was fake snow (actually, it was a biodegradable paper product supplied by a company called Snow Business) real snow also was on the ground many days, forcing actors to huddle around fires and crew to seek solace in zemlyankas -- partially underground wooden bunkers the set designers built in the process of re-creating the forest village.

"When you are under these adverse circumstances, people tend to bond, and this is a movie that is about community," Zwick says. "We formed our own community."

The conditions also kept the actors and crew members humble. Jan Brugge says that they arrived at the base camp in the morning, "lived" in the forest for the day, then went back to the hotel. "But those who lived through this did not," he says. "We have on parkas and have a catering truck, and so you are always thinking of what it was for these people to survive for all those years under those circumstances."

Lithuania's film industry remains in the nascent stage compared with its bigger brothers Bulgaria and Romania; the infrastructure and limited soundstages are more geared toward television work and indie movies. "Elizabeth I," the HBO miniseries starring Helen Mirren, shot in Vilnius, and the recent indie thriller "Transsiberian" also found a home there.

"Defiance," budgeted at about $35 million, was the first big production for the country.

Although there were headaches involving bureaucracy and cultural differences, Jan Brugge thinks the film shoot helped Lithuania.

"I think any time that a (movie) company comes into a country where there is a deficiency, it adds tremendous experience to the growth of a film industry," he says.